Sister Supporter campaigns for an end to harassment outside abortion clinics. In 2018, Ealing Council made history by implementing the first ever UK buffer zone around the MSI Reproductive Choices clinic in West London.
We sat down with Polly Jackman, National Coordinator at Sister Supporter, to discuss the organisation, anti-choice harassment outside abortion clinics, and the news that MPs in the House of Commons have voted in favour of national abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales.
“Sister Supporter simply believes that women should be able to access clinics free from harassment, alarm and distress.”
Who is Sister Supporter and what do you do?
Sister Supporter is a grassroots volunteer organisation based in London. We campaign for buffer zones or ‘safe access zones’ outside abortion clinics.
And how did you become involved?
I’ve been interested in women’s rights and human rights for a long time. Without bodily autonomy, all other rights fall away. For women, the ability to choose when, how or if we want to have children is so important – without that choice, all other rights pale into insignificance. I was already fighting with the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign for legislative change across both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I joined Sister Supporter too, because we need both abortion rights in law and practical access to abortion care. I don’t think it should be underestimated how much harder it is made to access care by the fact that there are groups of people trying to prevent you from doing that outside.
Is that why buffer zones are important to you?
Yes, exactly. Buffer zones work by creating a safe surrounding area around abortion clinics of around 100 metres, protecting women, pregnant people, and staff. Although buffer zones are primarily needed to protect against anti-choice harassment, they apply to pro-choice groups as well.
So how did the campaign begin?
Sister Supporter formed in winter 2015. Our founder was so enraged by anti-choice groups outside an abortion clinic near her family’s home (MSI’s West London clinic) that she decided to act. She put an ad in the local newspaper, saying she would organise a counter vigil. Sister supporter was born.
We had many amazing volunteers who kept coming back, every Saturday, in the rain, snow or boiling heat, standing outside the clinic and forming a shield for those entering the clinic.
Eventually Dr Pam Lowe, who researches abortion and anti-choice harassment suggested we consider using the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to create buffer zones. We explored whether Ealing Council could put a Public Spaces Protection Order, or PSPO, in place, using that legislation.
At this stage, BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) had launched a national campaign for abortion clinic buffer zones called ‘Back Off’, together with MSI and other partners, collecting testimonies of anti-choice harassment across the country. MSI staff in Ealing were documenting incidents, including whether the police were called. They supported clients and their companions to write a testimony about their experiences if they wanted.
Those testimonies later formed a major part of the evidence base when making the case for buffer zones.
What sort of anti-choice activity did you see outside the clinic?
We have witnessed all sorts of anti-choice activity outside clinics. Sometimes they ask service users to give their fetus a birthday. Sometimes they encourage people to rethink their so-called “lifestyle.” Sometimes they simply express judgement that anyone seeking an abortion is morally bad.
We’ve had instances of service users being told they’re in the wrong place and even redirected, in the hope that they will miss their appointments.
Perhaps the most concerning, though, is the dissemination of medical misinformation and handing out leaflets with a helpline for “non-judgemental” advice, which then leads people to anti-choice activists.
Did the local community support you?
Yes, they did. When we started the campaign in Ealing, together with MSI and other partners, we got a lot of support from residents. We often find residents living near abortion clinics strongly feel the anti-choice activity is wrong. As well as those entering the clinic, it bothers local people who have to witness harassment every day.
So, as well as speaking directly to the council ourselves, and to the police, we asked residents to write to their councillors. We also presented the council with a 3,500-signature petition in July 2017. The council knew they had to listen.
Throughout this, we worked closely with MSI, whose testimonies and incident logs were really powerful evidence for the council. Like MSI, Sister Supporter was part of the BPAS-led Back Off Campaign, which gathered evidence and testimonies from all around the country.
When did Ealing Council take action?
In January 2018, Ealing Council launched a public consultation on introducing a PSPO to protect MSI’s clinic, following a unanimous vote by the council cabinet. By the time the consultation closed in March, thousands of responses were submitted.
In April, at a well-attended meeting which attracted anti- and pro-choice groups outside, the council cabinet decided that they would introduce a PSPO to the effect that no anti-choice groups can gather within 100 metres of MSI’s clinic – or, indeed, any pro-choice groups, either.
It was challenged in the courts by anti-choice groups who, unsurprisingly, didn’t like it, claiming it infringed upon freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association.
But in making the decision, the council considered whether the behaviour was having a detrimental impact, whether it was persistent, and whether the effect was unreasonable. On all these counts, they concluded that the PSPO was justified.
And the courts agreed; the buffer zone was upheld by the High Court and again by the Court of Appeal, with the judge ruling that a PSPO was the only reasonable way that the Article 8 right to privacy and family life could be protected in these particular circumstances.
(You can read more about the human rights basis for buffer zones in law here, in MSI’s evidence submission to the Joint Human Rights Select Committee as part of its parliamentary inquiry into freedom of expression. You can read the Court of Appeal ruling in full for yourself here.)
“Abortion clinic harassment must come to an end across the whole of the United Kingdom.”
What would you say in response to those challenges from anti-choice groups?
Sister Supporter simply believes that women should be able to access clinics free from harassment, alarm and distress – and the courts agree. People are entitled to express their view that they don’t like abortion, but what they should not do is harass others while they are trying to access essential healthcare.
Allowing the groups to assemble, but only if they are a fixed distance from the clinic has proved to be a very fair solution – and it works.
That’s why there are now PSPOs in place in Ealing, Richmond, Manchester, Bournemouth and Birmingham, and why, on 18th October, MPs across various political parties voted in favour of national abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales. (This legislation is now making its way through the House of Lords.)*
How important is it to be able to work in partnership with other organisations when you are countering anti-choice harassment?
It’s really important to be able to work with other organisations, and that’s why the national BackOff campaign is so essential. The more voices we have, the stronger we are. It’s so powerful to be a part of a greater movement, and it’s also good to have different perspectives within a campaign.
Working with MSI, BPAS and everyone in the BackOff campaign, has been really important to Sister Supporter, and I don’t think we would have achieved what we have without working together.
Sister Supporter could not be more elated at the news that MPs have voted for an amendment to the Public Order Bill that will end intimidation and harassment outside abortion clinics across England and Wales.
This will end the postcode lottery, and ensure that women and pregnant people are able to access healthcare in dignity and privacy.
However, abortion clinic harassment must come to an end across the whole of the United Kingdom. We will continue to support those campaigning for the same change in Scotland and Northern Ireland, too.
Polly is a campaigning lawyer with a particular interest in reproductive justice, and the way the law is used to govern women’s bodies. She is on the Executive Committee of Abortion Rights and the National Coordinator of Sister Supporter. She divides her time between campaigning, practising as a family law solicitor, and working for Good Law Project, a non-profit whose mission is to achieve change through the law. You can follow her on Twitter @polly_jackman and contact her via her website, www.pollyjackman.com.
*MPs voted for this amendment in the House of Commons, but it won’t be implemented until the House of Lords has voted for it too. It will now progress through the House of Lords. You can read more about next steps here: MSI UK comment on UK Government vote in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones
To learn more about Sister Supporter, you can:
To read more about the importance of abortion clinic buffer zones, click on the links below: